blog gardening

Get an eco-friendly garden

IMG_4674If you’re trying your best to live sustainably, I’m sure you’ll want to take that commitment to your garden too.  For the past three years I’ve been carrying out in experiment in eco-gardening and wanted to share what’s worked for me so far.

Here are some of the techniques I use for an easy, eco-friendly approach to veggie gardening. Whether you are just getting started gardening or are already gardening and want some suggestions for upping your garden game, you might want to try some of these too!

– Raised beds.

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I used untreated southern yellow pine for my beds.

One advantage of raised beds: it’s easier to build up soil in beds. Since they are elevated from the ground in many cases they are less accessible to rabbits and the like. Being higher can be more comfortable for your back. Also, since you never walk in your raised bed, you won’t compact the soil.

– No-till.

For better soil health I never till, I simply add more compost to my beds. Tilling compacts your soil and brings weed seeds to the surface. It also disturbs the microbial life and earth worms that are beneficial to your plants. There are tons of specific no-till techniques, and all of them make the same claims: being an easier, lazy way to garden and creating better soil.

– Square foot gardening.

Instead of rows, plant in squares. You can grow more this way. Just know how many seeds or plants per square foot and you’re ready to go! Here’s a free square foot reference guide that helped me.

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Staggered planting guide

– Stagger plants instead of planting them in grids.

You can plant more plants in less space with you stagger them along triangular lines rather than planting on a grid.

– Make your own compost.

Buying compost is expensive! You may want to do it when you’re first getting started, I had a huge load delivered. But now I use a lazy compost system and try to make it meet all my composting needs. The most efficient compost system I’ve used is not an enclosed bin, but a circle of chicken wire, filled with leaves, into which I place my food scraps in the center. The food waste is surrounded by leaves and covered by leaves. Earth worms get in through the bottom and help with the decomposing. I moved to this system after a disappointing 2 year wait for compost that never matured in my tumbler bin. This cheaper method has been infinitely more successful – and nope, no rats or raccoons or possums in my compost.

– Plant what grows easily.

I have a couple different types of tomatoes (Matt’s Wild Cherry tomatoes and Yellow Pear) that keep reseeding every year and are resistant to blight, require low water, and taste delicious. Last year my squash and zucchini were decimated by squash vine borers so this year I’m planting a different variety of squash that is resistant to that aforementioned little nasty. Okra grows easily for me in the southern piedmont, so I’m planting more of that this year.

– Plant perennial fruits and veggies.

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Passion flower, aka, Maypop

Getting some of your food from perennials just makes sense. I’ve planted jerusalem artichokes, passionfruit, blackberries, blueberries and tons of perennial herbs. And that is just the tip of the iceberg as far as perennial food sources go.

– Plant living mulches.

I use nasturtium and other companion plants as living mulches. This keeps weeding down, keeps water in and creates a cooling effect.

– Companion planting.

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Nasturtium

Some plants thrive together. Some examples of companion plant combos are: corn, pumpkins, beans (the three sisters); beans, tomatoes, peppers; onions, potatoes, nasturtiums. My favorite companion planting book is Companion Planting for the Kitchen Gardener.

– Rotate your crops.

Move your different vegetable families around from bed to bed or spot to spot. Why? Planting the same thing year after year will deplete nutrients from the soil (this is less of a problem if you keep adding new compost) and pests will be more likely to return.

– Plant a polyculture

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A polyculture with frisee endive, shiso and kale

You can grow more vegetables in a given area if you plant a polyculture. Each plant has different requirements and will take different nutrients from the soil, so you are distributing your soil nutrients more evenly when your plantings are diverse. Also you will confuse insect pests if you plant a polyculture. Planting just one crop is kind of like putting up a flashing “Free food now!” sign for insect pests.

– Hand water.

Instead of using a sprinkler or a drip line, I water by hand with a watering wand. Less water is wasted this way – you only need to send water to the plants roots, not give it a shower. I don’t have to water very often during most of the season, and when I do, it gives me a chance to see how things are doing and do some light weeding. (Which, if you stay on top of it, could be the only type of weeding you have to do!)

– Plant some non-food plants to attract pollinators and insect predators. 

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Native mountain mint: a boon to the pollinators

It might be helpful to think of your garden more as an eco-system supporting a variety of life with a bonus of food rather than just food for you. It’s should be a mutualistic situation – you provide resources for pollinators and insect predators, and they help you out by pollinating your plants and keeping your insect pest populations in check. So far I have not used a single product for pest control and I’ve had enough food to give away or trade during the growing season.

There are certainly some other helpful techniques I’ve neglected here, but these are the main tenants of my eco-gardening ventures!

Happy gardening – here’s wishing you a little dirt under your nails!